21/07/2007

Iraq in the comfort zone.

From Palembang, I had to get back to Bangkok, so it was more time on the road, (or more specifically, in the air). The low cost carrier, Air Asia provided service back to Kuala Lumpur 24 hours after their flight had arrived the previous day. This gave me time for a short walk in the morning, down to the centre of the town, and the bridge which defines this. Despite this not being a tourist town, I soon got several offers of trips along the river, which I had no choice but to decline, due to time constraints. Also, the cycle rickshaws which seem to provide tourist colour and annoyance in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and here just part of the local transport scene. I also declined their assistance, and returned to the hotel on a public bus. These are 8 seater minibuses, sometimes converted from a land rover, with three poorly upholstered benches as the seats. There is no appearance of a timetable, but the buses have to queue up in order at the departure point by the bridge. Each one has its route marked at the top of the windscreen, and all buses playing the same route are painted in the same colour. Once I had boarded, my bus almost became a taxi, as I had exclusive use. Although this means we did not stop to pick up other passengers, (which I would not have minded), the journey was slow, with a five minute halt for a chat when a friend of the driver pulled up alongside on a moped, and another stop when the driver got off to buy a (single) cigarette, from a roadside seller.

My return to KL was uneventful, and the next morning I was out early again to catch a Bangkok flight. The evening was spent checking on some watering holes. The first one of choice was a so-called English pub, the décor might be right, but the size was unrealistic, and even if the beer was brewed on the premises, the bitter provided from a fake hand pump was somewhat disappointing. The equivalent of a low quality keg bitter in England. The second stop was on Soi Cowboy; chosen because my friend Steve, despite his advantage in years on me; always seems a little coy in matters regarding the opposite sex. He was embarrassed and flustered when we were approached in a hotel bar in Abu Dhabi, and I though this would also provide some light relief. As it was, we were too early, and the girls were all watching a soap opera when we arrived. Only when their favourite programme had finished did some dancing start, and even then they decided to ignore us, rather than humiliate Steve. Our third stop was a German brewhouse, well away from the tourist traps and frequented mainly by locals. The place was so popular that we would have needed to queue for a seat inside, where there was live music. Instead we took seats outside, reasonably comfortable by mid evening, and sampled their very passable German style Dunkel and Wiezen beers, while eating Thai food.

Saturday morning was true tourist style. The sky train, Bangkok’s neat public transport system that runs above the roads on tall concrete supports took us to its riverside terminus, and the boat service took as up the Chao Praya. We the spent our time walking around the spectacular temples that lie next to the Grand Palace. I had started out in shorts, but at the Grand Palace, I had to don the loan long trousers that are provided to make sure that even tourists are respectable.

I arrived at the stadium in time to make use of the media centre facilities to watch the first quarter final over in Hanoi. For the match itself, it seemed straight forward, Japan claimed all the possession and the running, but lack the players to finish the moves off, with the exception of Takahara. Australia, under pressure most of the game, know how to mount a break and took the lead on 70 minutes – only to concede a goal to Takahara two minutes later. Inevitably, with Japan not able to convert pressure into a second goal, even through extra time, it went to penalties.

Harry Kewell had the first penalty saved for Australia and Lucas Neill missed the second – so although the next two were scored, when Takahara stepped up for Japan’s fourth, the game was theirs to take. Unfortunately, he blasted over, Australia did score their final penalty, but so did Japan to win the tie.

It was good to see from the TV, that the crowd for the Japan-Australia game was reasonably good – the risk for the latter parts of the tournament was always that there would be a lack of interest with the host teams no longer on show. The match in Bangkok also managed to pick up a reasonable crowd, although they could spread out very thinly in such a large ground. It appeared there were few locals here, and hardly any take up of the free admission for students. Instead, the majority of the crowd were Vietnamese.

The Iraqi support consisted of a small band, no more than about 200 people sitting just below me. They very soon had something to cheer about, as Nashat Ali took the first free kick of the game, just 86 seconds in, and Younes Khalef got the slighest of headers to deflect the ball past the goalkeeper. For the rest of the half, Iraq had the majority of possession, but they rarely looked like increasing the lead. A rare Vietnamese attack could have brought an equaliser just before the break, but Nguyen Vu Phong’s shot was blocked off the line

Both sides are playing a 4-4-2 formation for this game, but since the early goal, Iraq are playing well within themselves, keeping the tempo slow whenever they have the ball, and relying on their strength in defence to keep the lead. The Vietnamese fans like to create noise whenever their players have the ball, but this leaves long periods of time when nothing can be heard other than the noise of a couple of Iraqi drums. The Iraqi noise built up a little more in the 65th minute, when they Younes Khalef took a free kick from just outside the area. Lifting the ball over the wall, it was well outside the reach of the Vietnamese keeper as it doubled the lead.

It looks unlikely that Vietnam can come back from this new blow. Their choice of players is limited by the absence of Phan Van Tai Em from the squad. Amazingly, he had chosen this date to get married. While his coach appears very diplomatic in allowing him leave for the wedding, Phan has taken a lot of criticism for not showing faith in his teams (let alone his own) ability. But then one could same the same of the Vietnam Football Federation. The AFC’s officialdom went into shades of apoplexy over Manchester United’s proposal to bring their touring team to Malaysia, and play there two days after the semi-final. They cited contract between the AFC and the FA of Malaysia and said no other match could be played in the country until after the tournament was complete. Meanwhile the VFF have reconsidered their own league, and re-arranged the restart of the league season for exactly the same date as United were due to play in Malaysia. As yet, the AFC have not objected!

Curiously, a Thai player, Datsakorn Thonglao, who also plays in Vietnam (and was the most expensive transfer in the countries history when he arrived from Thai team BEC Tero Sasana) also chose to get married during the tournament, although at least he decided not to do so on a match day, and played for his country two days later.

With 13 minutes to go, Younes Khalef comes close to his hat-trick, heading narrowly over. What little left that the Vietnamese can offer is easily handled, and most of their play comes to nothing on the sidelines. The Iraq team, content most of the time to use up possession and time could possibly have won by more than the two goal margin, but will be more than happy with the scoreline that propels them to the quarter finals